<
>

Canucks proving this writer wrong

We bring you back to a conversation we had with Roberto Luongo just more than three weeks ago. We were writing a column on how the NHL playoffs were one month away, and the Vancouver Canucks' captain seemed to take offense when your humble hockey writer suggested that come playoff time, his team could be a dark horse behind the likes of Detroit, San Jose, Calgary and Chicago.

"Maybe people on the outside view us as a dark horse, but in our locker room, we know we can compete and give these guys a run for their money," Luongo told us March 10. "We feel comfortable and confident enough that we can beat them."

We remember hanging up the phone and thinking to ourselves, "Geez, he really thinks his team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

Well, Mr. Luongo, we owe you an apology some three weeks later. Your team has indeed shown itself to be above the dark-horse tag by taking over first place in the Northwest Division and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

"And if you look at our record, we missed Roberto for 24 games, and we're first in our division right now," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "If you imagine that he had been healthy the whole year, I'm curious to see where we would be at this time."

The Canucks went 9-12-3 without their superstar netminder, but the dark times didn't end with his return Jan. 15. Luongo lost his first five starts after returning from injury, and the Canucks wrapped up the month with only two wins in 12 games. It was chaos in Vancouver, a hockey-crazed market where fans have been heartbroken more often than not during a 39-year NHL existence that has produced not a single Cup championship. Some fans wanted Vigneault's head.

Vigneault said it was a "hectic" time "as far the media scrutiny or the disappointment of our fans, which is understandable," he said.

But within the walls of GM Place, Vigneault said he and first-year GM Mike Gillis were very much on the same page, very much still believing in this team despite the tumult that reigned outside.

"I just felt like coaches and management, the whole crew was working together," said Vigneault, the Jack Adams Award winner as NHL coach of the year in 2006-07. "There were no cracks in the armor. We all felt the same thing, that it was a matter of time before it got turned around."

January was ugly, but worth it.

"I think we became a better team because of that," Canucks winger Ryan Kesler told ESPN.com this week. "We ran into tough times in January, it's no secret. I think a lot of us guys were questioning ourselves and looking at ourselves in the mirror. We finally just stuck together and stuck with it, and slowly dug our way out of it.

"Now we're not finding ways to lose games, we're finding ways to win. And it's good to see."

On the morning of Jan. 31, the Canucks trailed Northwest Division-leading Calgary by 13 points. On Tuesday night, following a 2-1 overtime win at Minnesota, the Canucks took over first place in the division for the first time since Dec. 14.

A 20-5-1 run since Jan. 31 has the Canucks looking oh-so-dangerous with the playoffs around the corner. They're a dark horse no longer.

"I think we're getting everybody's attention," said Kesler, a likely 2010 U.S. Olympic team pick. "Detroit and San Jose have been the two best teams all season, and they deserve all the credit that they're given because they have proven that they are powerhouse teams. But it's anybody's game when you make the playoffs.

"Especially since the lockout, it's been tough to separate the teams. I honestly believe it's the team that gets hot come playoff time that has the best chance to win."

It doesn't get much hotter than Vancouver right now. Luongo has been an obvious factor, and that goes without saying. He was the first player Kesler mentioned five seconds into our interview.

But their success has been sparked by more than their captain. For starters, the Canucks finally have two scoring lines filling the net. It's been a long time coming. The Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, who have been absolutely amazing, are teamed up with fan favorite Alexandre Burrows on the top line; Kesler has been skating with veterans Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra. The result has been a two-line offensive attack that has been difficult for opposing teams to handle.

"When you have two offensive lines going, it's tough for the other team to pick one to stop, because you have to throw your best D pair against one of them or your best shut-down forward line," Kesler said. "If you do it to our line, then the twins and Burrows are playing against their second-best D. It seems to have worked out well for us."

It was a stroke of genius from Vigneault around midseason. He made the difficult decision to break up the Kesler-Burrows third-line duo that had been so consistent for Vancouver during the past year and a half.

"Pavol Demitra came back from an injury, and I just decided to try and create two lines," Vigneault said. "So we put Burrows with the twins and Kesler with Mats and Pavol. And it worked out. That gave us two offensive lines. The other two lines do their job, playing hard at both ends of the rink."

On most nights, the third line features Kyle Wellwood with Steve Bernier and Mason Raymond. The fourth line usually has Ryan Johnson with Taylor Pyatt and Darcy Hordichuk.

"The other part of our success has been our healthy defense," Vigneault said. "Say what you want, but in this league, you need goaltending and you need defense. This year, we've been fortunate that things have been pretty good for us from that standpoint. That's one of the reasons we've been able to make this push."

You might question the overall mobility of Vancouver's blue-line corps, but certainly not its depth. When you have a talented player such as Kevin Bieksa slotted in recent games as your fifth defenseman behind the Willie Mitchell-Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund-Alexander Edler pairings, you know it's a decent group.

Outstanding in goal, solid on defense and now balanced offensively up front. Anyone like this team's odds?

"Once you're in the playoffs, I think anything is possible for any team that's in there," Vigneault said. "It's a matter of getting on a roll at the right time and getting your players to believe in themselves.

"Right now, our guys are feeling pretty good about their game and pretty good about their teammates."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.